Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

How to Learn a Star's True Age

25.05.2011
For many movie stars, their age is a well-kept secret. In space, the same is true of the actual stars. Like our Sun, most stars look almost the same for most of their lives. So how can we tell if a star is one billion or 10 billion years old? Astronomers may have found a solution - measuring the star's spin.

"A star's rotation slows down steadily with time, like a top spinning on a table, and can be used as a clock to determine its age," says astronomer Soren Meibom of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Meibom presented his findings today in a press conference at the 218th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Knowing a star's age is important for many astronomical studies and in particular for planet hunters. With the bountiful harvest from NASA's Kepler spacecraft (launched in 2009) adding to previous discoveries, astronomers have found nearly 2,000 planets orbiting distant stars. Now, they want to use this new zoo of planets to understand how planetary systems form and evolve and why they are so different from each other.

"Ultimately, we need to know the ages of the stars and their planets to assess whether alien life might have evolved on these distant worlds," says Meibom. "The older the planet, the more time life has had to get started. Since stars and planets form together at the same time, if we know a star's age, we know the age of its planets too."

Learning a star's age is relatively easy when it's in a cluster of hundreds of stars that all formed at the same time. Astronomers have known for decades that if they plot the colors and brightnesses of the stars in a cluster, the pattern they see can be used to tell the cluster's age. But this technique only works on clusters. For stars not in clusters (including all stars known to have planets), determining the age is much more difficult.

Using the unique capabilities of the Kepler space telescope, Meibom and his collaborators measured the rotation rates for stars in a 1-billion-year-old cluster called NGC 6811. This new work nearly doubles the age covered by previous studies of younger clusters. It also significantly adds to our knowledge of how a star's spin rate and age are related.

If a relationship between stellar rotation and age can be established by studying stars in clusters, then measuring the rotation period of any star can be used to derive its age - a technique called gyrochronology (pronounced ji-ro-kron-o-lo-gee). For gyrochronology to work, astronomers first must calibrate their new "clock."

They begin with stars in clusters with known ages. By measuring the spins of cluster stars, they can learn what spin rate to expect for that age. Measuring the rotation of stars in clusters with different ages tells them exactly how spin and age are related. Then by extension, they can measure the spin of a single isolated star and calculate its age.

To measure a star's spin, astronomers look for changes in its brightness caused by dark spots on its surface - the stellar equivalent of sunspots. Any time a spot crosses the star's face, it dims slightly. Once the spot rotates out of view, the star's light brightens again. By watching how long it takes for a spot to rotate into view, across the star and out of view again, we learn how fast the star is spinning.

The changes in a star's brightness due to spots are very small, typically a few percent or less, and become smaller the older the star. Therefore, the rotation periods of stars older than about half a billion years can't be measured from the ground where Earth's atmosphere interferes. Fortunately, this is not a problem for the Kepler spacecraft. Kepler was designed specifically to measure stellar brightnesses very precisely in order to detect planets (which block a star's light ever so slightly if they cross the star's face from our point of view).

To extend the age-rotation relationship to NGC 6811, Meibom and his colleagues faced a herculean task. They spent four years painstakingly sorting out stars in the cluster from unrelated stars that just happened to be seen in the same direction. This preparatory work was done using a specially designed instrument (Hectochelle) mounted on the MMT telescope on Mt. Hopkins in southern Arizona. Hectochelle can observe 240 stars at the same time, allowing them to observe nearly 7000 stars over four years. Once they knew which stars were the real cluster stars, they used Kepler data to determine how fast those stars were spinning.

They found rotation periods ranging from 1 to 11 days (with hotter, more massive stars spinning faster), compared to the 30-day spin rate of our Sun. More importantly, they found a strong relationship between stellar mass and rotation rate, with little scatter. This result confirms that gyrochronology is a promising new method to learn the ages of isolated stars.

The team now plans to study other, older star clusters to continue calibrating their stellar "clocks." Those measurements will be more challenging because older stars spin slower and have fewer and smaller spots, meaning that the brightness changes will be even smaller and more drawn out. Nevertheless, they feel up to the challenge.

"This work is a leap in our understanding of how stars like our Sun work. It also may have an important impact on our understanding of planets found outside our solar system," said Meibom.

The paper reporting this research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is posted online.

NASA Ames Research Center is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system, and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7462
daguilar@cfa.harvard.edu
Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7463
cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu

Christine Pulliam | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.harvard.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Taking a spin on plasma space tornadoes with NASA observations
20.11.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht NASA detects solar flare pulses at Sun and Earth
17.11.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: A “cosmic snake” reveals the structure of remote galaxies

The formation of stars in distant galaxies is still largely unexplored. For the first time, astron-omers at the University of Geneva have now been able to closely observe a star system six billion light-years away. In doing so, they are confirming earlier simulations made by the University of Zurich. One special effect is made possible by the multiple reflections of images that run through the cosmos like a snake.

Today, astronomers have a pretty accurate idea of how stars were formed in the recent cosmic past. But do these laws also apply to older galaxies? For around a...

Im Focus: Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ

Just because someone is smart and well-motivated doesn't mean he or she can learn the visual skills needed to excel at tasks like matching fingerprints, interpreting medical X-rays, keeping track of aircraft on radar displays or forensic face matching.

That is the implication of a new study which shows for the first time that there is a broad range of differences in people's visual ability and that these...

Im Focus: Novel Nano-CT device creates high-resolution 3D-X-rays of tiny velvet worm legs

Computer Tomography (CT) is a standard procedure in hospitals, but so far, the technology has not been suitable for imaging extremely small objects. In PNAS, a team from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) describes a Nano-CT device that creates three-dimensional x-ray images at resolutions up to 100 nanometers. The first test application: Together with colleagues from the University of Kassel and Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht the researchers analyzed the locomotory system of a velvet worm.

During a CT analysis, the object under investigation is x-rayed and a detector measures the respective amount of radiation absorbed from various angles....

Im Focus: Researchers Develop Data Bus for Quantum Computer

The quantum world is fragile; error correction codes are needed to protect the information stored in a quantum object from the deteriorating effects of noise. Quantum physicists in Innsbruck have developed a protocol to pass quantum information between differently encoded building blocks of a future quantum computer, such as processors and memories. Scientists may use this protocol in the future to build a data bus for quantum computers. The researchers have published their work in the journal Nature Communications.

Future quantum computers will be able to solve problems where conventional computers fail today. We are still far away from any large-scale implementation,...

Im Focus: Wrinkles give heat a jolt in pillared graphene

Rice University researchers test 3-D carbon nanostructures' thermal transport abilities

Pillared graphene would transfer heat better if the theoretical material had a few asymmetric junctions that caused wrinkles, according to Rice University...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Ecology Across Borders: International conference brings together 1,500 ecologists

15.11.2017 | Event News

Road into laboratory: Users discuss biaxial fatigue-testing for car and truck wheel

15.11.2017 | Event News

#Berlin5GWeek: The right network for Industry 4.0

30.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Antarctic landscape insights keep ice loss forecasts on the radar

20.11.2017 | Earth Sciences

Filling the gap: High-latitude volcanic eruptions also have global impact

20.11.2017 | Earth Sciences

Water world

20.11.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>